Debating Citizen’s Basic Income at the LSE

An event at the LSE on Tuesday 20th February was a microcosm of the now extensive debate on Citizen’s Basic Income.

Morning and afternoon sessions, which were held at The Venue in the See Saw Hock Student Centre, contained a mixture of short presentations, Q and As, and participative exercises, and attracted about 150 people. The first half hour was about definitions, which revealed the diverse terminology that the lively global debate has now generated: Basic Income, Citizen’s Income, Citizen’s Basic Income, Universal Basic Income – different terms, but they all mean the same thing: an unconditional income paid to every individual. The next discussion began with presentations on socialist and neoliberal perspectives from Professor Hartley Dean (LSE, Social Policy Department) and Daniel Pryor (Adam Smith Institute). The rest of the morning tackled funding mechanisms and costings methods, with Iva Tasseva from the Institute for Social and Economic Research, and Dr. Luke Martinelli from the Institute for Policy Research, discussing microsimulation techniques and results, Gareth Morgan, from Ferret Information Systems, explaining typical household methods, and Anne Miller, Chair of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust, discussing a national accounts method.

What the morning showed was that clear definition is essential; that Citizen’s Basic Income is now constructively debated across the political spectrum; that robust and detailed research on the effects of a Citizen’s Basic Income is both essential and possible; and that alternatives, such as Negative Income Tax, Participation Income, and Minimum Income Guarantee, although in some ways similar to a Citizen’s Basic Income, would be a lot more difficult to administer and could have other different effects.

The afternoon brought together representatives of a wide variety of past, current and planned pilot projects and other experiments: from India, Namibia, Iran, Finland, Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Serbia.

What this debate showed was the diversity of such experiments. The 1970s Canadian and US experiments were Minimum Income Guarantee rather than Citizen’s Basic Income experiments, but still have useful lessons to teach about how little a Citizen’s Basic Income would be likely to affect labour market participation. Results from Finland’s limited current experiment will be interesting to compare with the Canadian and US results. The Namibian and Indian pilot projects really were pilot projects, and delivered significantly positive results. Kenya’s similar but longer experiment will be interesting to watch. Iran’s implementation of something like a Citizen’s Basic Income is a fascinating example of a policy accident. And we discovered that Serbian, Scottish, and Dutch local authorities are struggling to implement genuine pilot projects because that would require central governments to alter current tax and benefits systems for the pilot areas.

In the evening, following a brief discussion of the definition of a Citizen’s Basic Income, Professors Philippe Van Parijs (Leuven and Louvain Universities) and John Kay (formerly of Oxford University and the LSE) debated the motion ‘This house believes that if the Beveridge Report were being written today then it would have recommended a Basic Income’, followed by a Q and A and a vote (58% for, 42% against). Polly Toynbee, who had been present for the whole day, offered her reflections on both what she had heard and on the state of Citizen’s Basic Income debate. Her well-balanced assessment recognised that the debate is important because one day we might need a Citizen’s Basic Income.

The LSE Festival, held from the 19th to the 24th February as the culmination of a whole year of celebrations of the 75th anniversary of William Beveridge’s 1942 Social Insurance and Allied Services, has both looked back to that seminal report, and looked forwards to what we might need to do now to tackle the five giants of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness (Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6), and to what we might need to do to tackle some of today’s new giants. The Citizen’s Basic Income day, morning, afternoon, and evening, made a substantial contribution to this agenda, showing how Citizen’s Basic Income could reduce poverty, increase financial security, reduce mental illness, encourage skills acquisition, enhance employment incentives, and encourage a wide variety of kinds of work. That’s four of the giants. On its own it would do little for the housing crisis: but that is not a criticism of Citizen’s Basic Income. Important issues that we need to tackle today are loneliness and inequality. A Citizen’s Basic Income would enhance social solidarity, and it could reduce inequality.

A distinction that was made at the beginning of the day is that between Citizen’s Basic Income – always an unconditional income for every individual – and a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme, which specifies the levels of Citizen’s Basic Income for different age groups, the funding mechanism, and any changes that will be made to the current tax and benefits systems. During the day, and particularly during the debate in the evening, it became clear that some of the effects being claimed for Citizen’s Basic Income related to its character as an unconditional income, and some to the details of a particular scheme. For instance, any Citizen’s Basic Income would enhance social solidarity simply because it would be paid unconditionally to every individual, whereas whether a Citizen’s Basic Income would be financially feasible, would reduce inequality, would reduce poverty, or would remove significant numbers of households from means-testing, would depend on the details of the particular scheme. What the day made clear is that as the debate progresses it will be essential to maintain the distinction between Citizen’s Basic Income and a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme.

Between them, the different parts of the day have provided a snapshot of an important debate. If a similar event were to be held in five years’ time – or perhaps in just one or two years’ time – the debate might be in a very different place, and the day could be equally different.


The Citizen’s Basic Income Day’s organising committee is most grateful to a wide variety of LSE departments, other organisations, and individuals, for making the day possible.

A podcast of the evening debate, and an article by Polly Toynbee, can be found here.